Modern society has been changing the role of villains in film. Villains in early cinema fulfilled the archetype of evil in order to oppose the archetypes of good, the heroes. However, villains in film have been changing drastically over the past century including Disney villains. Although Disney hosts a myriad of villains, few are as iconic as Maleficent, the Mistress of Evil. An analysis of the various depictions of Maleficent shows that Disney has changed her in response to the cultural revamping of villains.
In order to better understand the evolution of Maleficent it is important to understand the history of Disney villains. Starting with Pete in Steamboat Willie, villains from the House of Mouse have been perfect archetypal representations of evil. These classic antagonists were two-dimensional characters with very little backstory, development, and only capable of malevolent actions. Some examples from recent history include Lady Tremaine, Claude Frollo, and Cruella de Vil.
Disney’s depiction of Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s evil stepmother) in the 1950 animated film portrays her as an inherently evil woman fueled by hatred. No rationale or backstory is ever given as to why she despises Cinderella—she simply loathes her without reason. She always wears a scowl or a smirk unless in the presence of royalty. Close-up shots of her face are often in shadow with a slow zoom that focuses on her dark eyes—zoomed out shots emphasize her shadow elongated across the room.
Claude Frollo (the villainous priest from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is always clothed in black. Although he is supposed to represent a holy figure, he is often shown in scenes with dark backdrops, shadows, and often positioned next to fire. He believes himself to be righteous, but does only evil. Despite his belief that he is aligned with heaven, he sings a song about the fires of hell. It is made clear that he is the antagonist with no doubt in the audience’s mind as to who is the villain. He feigns kindness to Quasimodo merely to gain power. His religion dictates that he should remain chaste, but he lusts after Esmerelda. When she denies him, his lust turns to hate. Both Lady Tremaine’s and Frollo’s actions are fueled by hatred—hatred towards Cinderella and hatred towards Esmerelda.
Cruella de Vil’s (101 Dalmatians) wickedness is apparent in her name—an obvious play on the word “cruel”. Solely dressed in black and white with hair to match, her attire reflects her persona—a sickly sweet exterior with an evil, demented interior. Her villainy is directed towards the innocent. Cruella seeks the Dalmatian puppies for her own personal gain. She is motivated by selfishness and greed. She is willing to sacrifice anything in order to get what she wants. She is even willing to sacrifice the lives of her own henchmen. As with Lady Tremaine and Frollo, lighting and costuming are important elements that are used to signify that Cruella is the villain—solid colors, shadows, and all three have very dramatic eyes with crazed expressions at the climaxes of their respective movies.
Lady Tremaine, Frollo, and Cruella represent a Disney era where villains were always bad and heroes were always good as seen in the denotative signifiers surrounding these villains which all connote evil—shadows, black, smirks, crazy eyes, and so on. However, Disney has been changing the villain persona as seen in the example of Maleficent.
Maleficent is a Disney villain who has changed over time. The name Maleficent itself is Latin for harmful or evil. Maleficent was first introduced as a character by the Brothers Grimm in the tale Sleeping Beauty where she was simply a fairy who curses the princess. She was no longer the antagonist after placing the initial curse. She appears for one scene then vanishes from the story. There is no explanation as to why she wants to curse the princess. All of the other fairies are depicted happy and jovial whereas Maleficent is shown to be cold. She has wings that are black which is different from all of the other fairies.
However, the Disney version expanded her role making her the main antagonist throughout the story—transforming her from a simple fairy into a dragon, a sorceress, the so-called “mistress of evil”.
She still acts out of pure spite with no explanation as to why she detests the royal family. Maleficent is simply evil and wreaks havoc for the sake of wreaking havoc. She has no friends or allies. Her crow is a servant as are her goblins who she governs with fear. Denotative signifiers are again used to clearly portray Maleficent as the villain, signifiers such as isolation, anger, all-black attire, black castle, horns, evil laugh, fire, the list goes on and on. This first Disney depiction of Maleficent fits perfectly with the other Disney villains of that time period namely Lady Tremaine, Claude Frollo, and Cruella de Vil.
In Disney’s 2011 television show Once Upon a Time, Maleficent was never a fairy, but merely a witch who could transform into a dragon. In the show, Maleficent the witch terrorized people out of the enjoyment of striking fear into people. She had no vengeance, no agenda, no motive other than the glee of being a villain. However, this all changed once she gave birth to a daughter. Her primary concern then became protecting her daughter, Lily. Maleficent is then shown to be tender, caring, and deeply invested in her daughter. Later when Lily finds herself in trouble, despite all odds Maleficent reconciles with Princess Aurora and the other heroes. She is willing to make amends at any cost in order to save her daughter. She softens and chooses to no longer be evil, but instead voluntarily helps the heroes. In direct contrast to the first Disney depiction of Maleficent, this Maleficent often forgoes the all-black attire and instead prefers to wear white.
Nothing is ever explicitly stated about this costume change in the show, but the signifiers are clear. Maleficent’s transformation from villain to hero is evident not only by her actions, but the denotative signifier of her pure, white clothing also reflects her inner character change.
In 2014, Maleficent was given her own movie titled after her name, Maleficent. Although she had previously only been a villain with no hope of redemption, this movie gave her an anti-hero story arc that made her a hero turned evil. She becomes a complicated character who is not simply an embodiment of an evil, but a relatable character who has human flaws. Maleficent was a young fairy, pure and innocent. She was exceptionally kind and early on in the story she saves a young human boy named Stefan. Maleficent and Stefan develop a friendship (and later a romantic relationship) over the years forming the beginnings of a bridge between the fairy folk and humans. Maleficent grows strong over these years and becomes the guardian of the fairies. However, Stefan becomes corrupted by the greed of men and in order to become king he has to kill Maleficent. Instead of killing her, he drugs Maleficent and severs the wings off her back and steals them. The scene where Maleficent wakes up to realize her wings are gone is haunting. Actress Angelina Jolie gives a heart-wrenching performance to show the agony of Maleficent. The audience feels deep empathy for this poor character who has been so horrifically betrayed. Stefan’s betrayal plants a seed of hatred in Maleficent’s heart which grows until it overpowers her good nature.
She sheds her fairy clothes of earth tones—browns and green—and instead dresses in an all-black dress. Her horns which were brown have turned a dark black. This external transformation shows Maleficent’s change of heart. She curses the princess, King Stefan’s daughter, in retribution, in order to punish Stefan. Princess Aurora is sent out into the woods to be raised by three good fairies. However, these fairies are incompetent and frequently inadvertently put the child’s life at risk so Maleficent has to often step in to save her. Over the course of Aurora’s life, Maleficent grows to love her deeply—helping her regain her ability to love and have hope. Maleficent does all she can to protect Aurora by fighting Stefan. Ultimately it is Maleficent who saves Aurora from the curse when she kisses her on the forehead and it is revealed that it was true love’s kiss. Maleficent loved Aurora with a pure maternal love powerful and true enough to break the curse.
An understanding of the story is necessary to see how Maleficent’s story changed from the original animated movie to this latest depiction. Since she is not strictly a villain in this movie, for the first time Maleficent was allowed to love, to laugh, to serve, to sacrifice, and to cry. The character of Maleficent was allowed to experience a spectrum of emotion outside of rage. Audiences are becoming increasingly more interested in internal conflicts than they are with external conflicts and no one struggles through more internal conflicts than a villain. It is especially fascinating to explore the psyche of a villain as iconic as Maleficent, to dig in and really see why she acts the way she does. Maleficent was changed from a villain to a character who has both light and dark within them. The movie itself states, “In the end, [the] kingdom was united not by a hero or a villain, as legend had predicted, but by one who was both hero and villain. And her name was Maleficent.” When a villain has no backstory, it is impossible to feel empathy for them. Maleficent introduced elements to humanize Maleficent and make her a relatable character—a protagonist that people would be excited to rally behind. She loses her way and causes serious problems, but ultimately fixes her own mistakes to set things right. Maleficent was revolutionary in that for the first time Disney gave a full redemption storyline to a villainous character.
It is interesting to note that this most recent iteration of Maleficent bears more resemblance to Elsa from Frozen than to other villains. Elsa is an anti-hero (a hero who lacks conventional heroic characteristics). She unintentionally causes major problems throughout the story and nearly kills her sister. Fear controls her and causes her to push away everyone who is close to her. Ultimately it is love that gives Elsa the strength to seize control of herself. Maleficent also unintentionally harms those she loves out of misguided motives, but it is love that reminds her of who she truly is and helps her find redemption. In both of these stories there is a minor villain who causes problems (Hans in Frozen and King Stefan in Maleficent), but the true “villain” so to speak is the protagonist’s internal conflict. This garners a stronger emotional response out of the audience because there is no one person to hate and blame. Elsa and Maleficent are both victims and although they are partially guilty, they ultimately are not evil characters. Instead of having a clear hero and a clear villain, the audience is left in limbo of not knowing exactly how the story can resolve itself. There is empathy for all of the characters as you come to realize that sometimes the greatest antagonist in life is yourself. Perhaps this strikes a chord with audiences because they feel that struggle in their own lives. They also feel that they are their own worst villain. Maybe society has been hiding the true antagonist all along behind exaggerated villain stereotypes and now entertainment is becoming more realistic and so the villains are becoming more real as well.
The role of Disney villains has been changing along with the cultural revolution of the rise of the antihero and the redeemable villain over the past decade in the entertainment industry. They are given chances at redemption and are seen as people who have made poor decisions as opposed to inherently evil adversaries. Entertainment today romanticizes the broken, tortured soul and celebrates moral ambiguity by defying black-and-white interpretations of good and evil.